Motorola returns to Chinese smartphone market

Motorola's Moto X
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Motorola's Moto X

Motorola is planning a return to the Chinese smartphone market to take on local manufacturers such as Xiaomi and Huawei, as the venerable mobile maker's recovery gains momentum.

Putting its Moto X and G devices on sale in the country in the first quarter of this year, Motorola is aiming for younger and more affluent customers in the world's largest and most competitive mobile market.

While under Google's ownership, Motorola withdrew from China in 2013. Rick Osterloh, Motorola's president and chief operating officer, told the FT on Tuesday that the company sees a new opportunity there after its sale to Chinese electronics group Lenovo, which closed in October.

"If you want to be among the top [smartphone] providers, you have to be in China. It's a maths problem," he said. "We see this as a huge synergy as part of the Lenovo acquisition."

Mr Osterloh said that it was "incredibly painful for us" to stop doing business in China under Google.

But after being written off by some analysts, a revamped product line-up helped Motorola to double its unit sales last year, Mr Osterloh said, giving it confidence to accelerate its international expansion after several years of retrenchment. From a low point of selling in just 10 countries, Motorola is now in 50 markets and expanding further.

"We've got a lot of momentum," Mr Osterloh said. "The counterpoint to that is, a year-and-a-half ago we did not a have a lot of momentum. We had hit a low point in our quarterly shipments."

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Mr Osterloh said that Motorola's near-death experience gave it the freedom to rethink its products and manufacturing, including the ability to produce thousands of different potential configurations of its Moto X, which customers can choose from an online portal that will also be made available in China.

"Our focus going forward is a small number of great products, great software and giving users the power to choose," he said.

Describing the changes required to provide extensive customization as a "restart" for the business and its supply chain, he said: "It would be exceptionally hard for someone at massive scale to do this. It was a unique capability that was made possible quite frankly because we were so small."

Customers' ability to personalize their devices with different colors, finishes and specifications is central to Motorola's renewed pitch in China, where Xiaomi's low-cost, well-designed devices have seen the four-year-old company steal huge share from Samsung in the last year. Last month, Xiaomi closed a $1 billion round of funding to further its expansion.

Mr Osterloh said Motorola saw an opportunity in Samsung's sudden weakness, suggesting that the world's largest mobile maker might even go the way of Nokia and BlackBerry.

"It's a fascinating market because every several years, the leader tends to turn over," he said. "Unfortunately, way back when, Motorola was in that trend. BlackBerry went through this terrible thing, Nokia's been through this. Samsung's had a pretty precipitous drop in share in most markets and who knows what's next."

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The combined market share of Lenovo and Motorola today puts it in third place in the smartphone market, behind Apple and Samsung.

Retooling its Android-based phones for Chinese consumers will mean replacing Google internet services, such as search and email, with "locally appropriate" alternatives.

But Mr Osterloh said that it would retain the full Android service in other markets, rejecting the suggestion from some market watchers that it could create greater differentiation by selling Android-based phones without Google services outside China as "a bad idea".